Murder Trial: The Disappearance of Margaret Fleming

BBC Scotland, 10pm ****

Television courtroom dramas tend to be tantalising affairs. Particularly at the lighter end of the market, characters are colourful, motives are convoluted, and cases are often solved in one fell swoop, usually by the appearance of a surprise witness five minutes before the end.

In reality, the wheels of justice move slowly, routinely, even tediously. Or at least that was the accepted notion.

A new BBC Scotland documentary, Murder Trial: The Disappearance of Margaret Fleming, turns the idea that fiction is more compelling than fact on its head.

This was the first time cameras were allowed to cover a murder trial in the High Court in Glasgow. Given the astonishing results, it is unlikely to be the last.

The first sign that filmmaker Matt Pinder intends to deliver a crime documentary out of the ordinary comes in the opening shots.

As an early version of Whispering Grass plays, the camera sweeps over the glittering waters of Inverclyde, drinking in the surrounding mountains, the grass and trees, all of nature’s majesty laid out, just like in a tourist ad.

Then the captions appear. In 2016, we are told, Police Scotland launched a missing person inquiry.

Margaret Fleming, 35, had disappeared from the coastal village of Inverkip. Now the cameras are overhead and looking down on a house with rubbish strewn outside.

As we get closer the place is obviously an abandoned wreck. The sound and visuals suggest something ugly has happened in this beautiful part of the country, and we are about to find out what.

Margaret’s two carers have been accused of her murder. After such an innovative opening, the film goes to the other extreme when showing what happens in the court itself.

The cameras need do no more than point and look, for the stuff of riveting drama is here already.

The accused, Edward Cairney and Avril Jones, entering court; the witnesses on the stand; the lawyers with their notes and the judge pecking at his laptop. If anything, rendering all this in such a low key, matter of fact way only makes it more compelling.

What a very modern workplace the court turns out to be, with screens on the walls for lawyers to post evidence on. We meet the lawyers for the prosecution and defence, setting out what their job is and what they hope to achieve.

Again, it seems straightforward enough, but as we see, it is anything but. Securing justice is a human business, and therefore a messy, inexact one. Tears flow. Pinder takes frequent breaks from the courtroom for interviews.

Old school friends remember Margaret as a shy girl with a lovely smile. A former support teacher recalled the youngster, who had learning difficulties, visiting her office.

Come in, the teacher would say, do you need a cuddle? The Margaret missing from the courtroom, the Margaret who was a stranger, was here brought to life, and we could only wish she had known more kindness and care.

One of the most poignant aspects of the case was that no-one had seen Margaret since 1999. No alarms were sounded.

Police officers who worked on the case were interviewed, as were some of those who knew the defendants, and we hear from BBC Scotland reporter Suzanne Allan about the now famous interview she conducted with Cairney and Jones.

Between filling in the background, telling the story, and keeping pace with what was happening in the courtroom, this was a complex package to put together, but Pinder and his crew did so with deceptive ease.

Like a few other BBC Scotland documentaries, Murder Trial is showing on network television and on the new homegrown channel, which makes scheduling details slightly confusing.

Part two, for example, is on BBC Scotland tonight at 10pm, while BBC2 has the first instalment at 9pm. However you do it, catch up with this one as quickly as you can.